Page 135 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 41

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SLOTN ICK / BERGELSON AND TRAD IT ION
129
conditions, economic effects or political remedies. In his th ird
novel,
Mides-hadin
(Severe judgem en t, 1929) he employs this
same provincial setting for an explicitly political expression. The
events o f the novel take place in and around the small Jewish town
o f Golikhovke, du r ing the years o f the civil war after the Russian
revolution. A lthough
Mides-hadin
constitutes Bergelson’s first
novelistic step toward Marxism, and expresses his version o f his­
torical determinism and material dialectics, the consciousness
and experience o f the individual, ra th e r than any broad social
concept, is, as in the first two novels, at the center o f the work.
Mides-hadin
presents an exposition and illustration o f
Bergelson’s new ideological orientation o f the twenties, his ver­
sion o f Marxism, through a Christian religious paradigm: the
local Bolshevik commander, Filipov, reveals himself and his “true
doctrine” in epiphanies, converts disciples, and finally dies to
expiate the ir sins and bring them closer to redemption. The rad i­
cal impact o f Bergelson’s use o f the traditional milieu o f the shtetl
for such a revolutionary statement is intensified by the alien qual­
ity o f the Christian metaphor. Paradoxically, Bergelson’s direct
response in this novel to the conventions o f the literary shtetl —
his attempts to reveal, to some extent, the class structure o f
Golikhovke — is a less striking dep a r tu re from tradition, since
criticism o f the social structures o f the shtetl, from whatever ideo­
logical standpoint, was itself integral to Yiddish prose from its
beginnings.
Bergelson’s Marxist “demasking” o f the shtetl in
Mides-hadin
was in some ways a fo re runn e r o f his next novel, which was explic­
itly devoted to an examination o f class conflict in provincial Jew ­
ish society. In
Penek
(1932), the first installment o f Bergelson’s
projected multivolume autobiographical series,8 the au tho r con­
fronts head-on the myths and conventions o f the literary shtetl.
This novel is set in a small Ukrainian shtetl in the last decades o f
the nineteenth century — precisely the time and place that was, by
1932, largely a subject o f sentiment and nostalgia for the “lost”
way o f life. With its critical, Marxist perspective on the shtetl,
Penek
is Bergelson’s most direct novelistic attack on tradition and
literary conventions.
Bergelson’s rigorous examination o f what he sees as the class
8 Only two volumes were completed and published:
Penek
(1931) and
Yungeyorn
(Years of youth, 1940).